Monday, November 23, 2009

Will anyone be thanking you this year?

It's just a few days out from my personal favorite holiday of the year...Thanksgiving. Beyond the cooking, the eating, the re-eating of left overs, and all the holiday cheer that makes this day so much fun, Thanksgiving to me is a humbling annual reminder of how fortunate an individual I am and how privileged an existence I lead.

Too often we become blinded by the quest of something greater than we already possess, and in the process lose sight of what extraordinary things we have in the present. Stress over getting to that "next phase" in our lives where we will have a better job, a better car, a better house, or more money, takes precedent over any chance we have at finding peace with our current place in life and simply soaking in the moments we'll never get back.

The truly important things in life are almost always taken for granted. The relationships we have with family and friends are just as fragile as our bank accounts and our careers, but are almost never given as much attention and care. It's hard to fathom, but there are many places and instances in the world, some even right here in our own country, where the simple luxury of having family and friends around is not afforded.

Because I do not wait each day for a family member to return from a war zone with his or her life, because I do not wake up each morning knowing that a loved one is dying of a terminal illness but cannot afford treatment, because I do not start each day wondering how and if I am going to eat today, because I don't worry on my way to class if a car bomb is going to kill me or someone I care about, because I do not have to trek through miles of terrain without shoes to get water for myself, because I not only have the freedom to be an opinionated woman but also have the luxury of sharing my political and religious beliefs with the world on this blog without repercussions; I am thankful.

With such a limited world view, we as Americans, especially living in privileged neighborhoods, aren't reminded daily of the atrocities occurring all over the world, and even those occurring in our backyards. We could never begin to understand the plight that so many live through each day whether it be homelessness, hunger, abuse, illness, discrimination, or war. This is the reality for billions of people, and yet we will go on living our lives worried about which designer handbag or car we will buy with our next pay check.

Let me be clear that I am in no way exempting myself from any of these observations or accusations. In fact, I am often ashamed of how little I contribute to help the many injustices of the world. I am especially humbled and also motivated by those who not only have identified a way to make a difference, but have made it their life's work to do so.

The CNN annual Heroes award show is a wonderful look at how an individual's compassion and dedication can make such a positive difference on the world. It's also a grounding reminder of how little so many of us do on a daily and even yearly basis to positively affect another's life besides our own. The taping of CNN's award show airs on Thanksgiving night, it's a great show...I actually volunteered at the media table last year passing out will-call tickets and got to stay and see the live show. If you can't watch the show, or even DVR it, check out some of the Heroes' stories online...I promise you will be inspired. (side note: watching the clips online means you don't get to see the wonderful Anderson Cooper host the award show.)

And in addition to considering what you yourself have to be thankful for as you indulge in your Thanksgiving feast, also ask yourself: who will be thankful for you?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The News Stays PC, and for Good Reason

The media is once again under fire, this time for its coverage of the Ft. Hood tragedy. In an article about the media's coverage of the event, Pew Research wrote:

And in certain parts of the media landscape last week, most notably some talk shows, the failure to pre-empt the Hasan attack took on ideological or cultural overtones.

Conservative radio talk host Pat Gray, subbing for Glenn Beck last week, declared that “the only reason they didn’t [act against Hasan before the shooting] is political correctness. They’re worried about offending Muslims.”

Similar sentiments were heard on Bill O’Reilly’s November 12 Fox News show when analyst Bernard Goldberg attacked the media’s coverage of the case. “Every rational person in the entire country knows that Hasan shot up the place because he’s a Muslim terrorist,” Goldberg declared. But many journalists have tiptoed around the terror issue, he added, “because they don’t want to offend Muslims.”

This is obviously a sensitive and tricky issue for journalists. The media was more or less damned if they did and damned if they didn’t with this story. Because they were cautious and took time to speculate Hasan’s ties with radical Islamists, they are being slammed for not reporting aggressively enough and being too “politically correct”. But in my opinion, if they would have jumped to early conclusions that Hasan was a Muslim terrorist and it turned out that he was not, that would have been even worse. Reporting something that is factually incorrect is always damaging to a news organization, but because of the especially sensitive nature of the accusation, it had the potential to be even more disastrous if not carefully investigated.

What was known from the beginning, was that Hasan was by definition a terrorist simply from the act he committed, regardless of his political or religious motives. I don’t think there was anything wrong with being cautious about those motives before they were solidly confirmed. Whether he was an American terrorist or a Muslim terrorist or any kind of terrorist, he was still a terrorist who went on a murdering spree. The need to attach some kind of religious association with that terrible act of crime, doesn’t make the situation any more or less tragic.

Being politically correct can sometimes be annoying in the journalism world, but it is so crucial to maintaining credibility and respect from all viewers. Reporting controversial facts as they exist and are known is one thing, but making early accusations that have not been proven and include a supposition of crimes motivated by race, gender, religion, etc. could potentially ostracize an entire demographic from your newscast. Maintaining objectivity is key to responsible reporting.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

War Is Not a Game

Teenagers and young adults all across the world couldn’t wait to get their hands on the sixth installment of the Call of Duty video game series last week. Modern Warfare 2 had an unprecedented debut, shattering records for both gaming and motion picture releases. Now hundreds of millions of gamers are playing the most realistic-looking warfare video game to date. While the game, like its predecessors, may look like the real thing, it couldn’t be any further from it. The most troublesomely misleading difference between the two is the game’s power switch: a button that may be able to bring your character back to life, but will never be able to reverse the fates of the millions of American soldiers and countless civilians whose lives have been ended or changed forever as the result of war.

First-person shooter games like Modern Warfare 2 imitate the experience of killing opponents, and in the process, reduce the reality of murder down to a gunfire sound effect and a virtual explosion of blood that drips down the screen. These effects, coupled with thematic story lines and cutting edge graphics, suck players into a game that portrays war as both thrilling and fun. The game belittles the cruelty, inhumanities, and injustices of warfare, creating a jaded perception of what war is really like.

The entertainment world as a whole has long been guilty of sensationalizing the glory of military combat and killing as a dignified and admirable national duty. The interactive nature of video games though, takes the excitement of the action to another level by putting the responsibility of the outcome in the hands of the media consumer. Killing then becomes a game that must be won, and the gamer becomes comfortable and confident with his or her part in it.

While the games have varying age requirements for purchase that range from 15 years to 17 years, it can be assumed that much younger children are also experiencing these warfare simulations. Many groups have spoken out against violent games like the Call of Duty series, with concerns that repeated exposure to this kind of content over an extended period of time could be even more difficult for impressionable children and teens to distinguish as a false-reality.

Modern Warfare 2 has sparked a renewed sense of alarm among these critics. It’s the first of its kind to take players through a realistic terrorist attack at an airport (including the killing of innocent civilians), an element that’s been dubbed the “most emotionally disturbing scene yet built into interactive entertainment” (Seth Schiesel, New York Times). Such a distinction makes me wonder at what point in time so called “entertainment” crosses the line from entertaining to unnecessary.

Not only do these games desensitize millions to the horror that is real war and terrorism, but they also build up an undue amount of hype about militaristic operations. One cannot help but notice the propagandistic similarities between popular war video games and the military recruiting ads themselves. They each glamorize a job that involves killing, living in unthinkable conditions, and risking one’s life on a regular basis.

The Call of Duty series also paints an incomplete picture that stops short of any kind of reality soldiers may face during or after they serve. For those who do make it out alive, many will experience some kind of physical or mental illnesses, joblessness, homelessness, and undoubtedly the painful daily reminders of what they witnessed and what they themselves took part in. These are the kinds of permanent, life-altering consequences of warfare that aren’t evoked by video games.

And for those who eventually choose to trade in their game controllers for real weapons, one can only hope that they can differentiate the fragility of their own life and the lives of others, from the dispensability of the video game characters on the screen.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

California, Up a Creek, Without a Paddle...or a Rower

Almost 37,000,000 people in the state of California, and currently there are NO Democrats to speak of in the official running for the 2010 Gubernatorial race. Where is everyone? Why is no one stepping up to the plate?

In case you haven't heard, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom withdrew his candidacy because his poll numbers against the other (still unofficial) candidate, Jerry Brown, weren't looking great, and with a new baby he just didn't have the time...what a disappointment.

For those of us Democrats who were putting all our eggs in the Newsom basket, we are now left with but one candidate option for the primaries. Attorney General and former California Governor Jerry Brown will be our only choice... if he lives to see the day. At 71 years old, this guy is certainly qualified to be Governor, just like he was in 1974 and in 1978. But qualified isn't going to cut it this time around for California. The current sate of crisis California is in needs more than an arthritic old-timer, ready to come back for a Homecoming game and hit a few balls. We need a new MVP. Someone who can inspire the same kind of hope and sense of political efficacy that Obama did on the national level. Where is our promise of "change" California?

Certainly, there are other candidates. The GOP pool boasts a few of them...all more or less the same person. Extremely rich, privileged politicians hailing from Silicon Valley. They all promise to remove government at every turn and return the state to it's people. It sounds good, sure, but is this what California needs? Tell the unemployed, the starving, the homeless, the sick, and the poor (who no doubt collectively make up a significant portion of the state), "Don't worry, we'll get rid of the big bad government and then you can fend for yourself!" They seem to be campaigning with a 'if it's broken, don't fix it, get rid of it' attitude. Could these billionaires, willing to spend a small fortune of their own personal wealth on their campaigns, be any more out of touch with the people of California?

So here we are. A year from this week exactly, California, our great Blue state, will head to the polls to cast a vote. A vote that will be more like picking the least worst candidate than picking the best. A vote that will likely beg a series of questions in my mind that go a little something like, "Where are all the California politicians? Was there really no one else who would bite the bullet for the sake of our collective future? The future of one of the most progressive, nationally-influential states in America? A state with one of the largest economies in the world? Where is everyone? Can we not find anyone to replace the Governator? No movie stars even?"

Seriously? If I was old enough, I would run for Governor. Shoot.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Obama's Careful Balancing Act

Hope. Change. Yes We Can.

These are the phrases that inspired the majority of a nation to unite under one common dream of a brighter tomorrow, and fight for the one man who was promising it all. Now that tomorrow is today, many Obama supporters wait with baited breath for their President to fulfill his campaign promises to them. The trouble is, each promise comes along with its own set of political, moral, and religious implications. Suddenly it becomes evident that keeping a promise to one group of people could come at the price of breaking a promise to another.

One faction of Democratic campaign supporters that have been getting a lot of press recently for their disappointment in President Obama’s lack of follow through with campaign promises is the Gay and Lesbian community. I whole-heartedly believe that Obama has every intention of following through with his promises to repeal the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy, as well as overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. However, I also believe that timing these major changes appropriately could be key to keeping the political ball rolling on accomplishing other pertinent policy goals.

Gay rights is a point of great contention for many members of the conservative party, who believe it directly conflicts with their moral and religious beliefs. As much as I’d like to see President Obama throw out a big ‘screw you’ to the right aisle, exploit the privilege of the filibuster-proof Democratic majority in Congress, and sign every liberal bill into effect that he can, I know, as well as he does, that politics is a game that must be played strategically to win. To follow through with all of his promises to the Gay and Lesbian community at this point in time would almost certainly ostracize both conservative Republicans as well as moderate liberals, both of whom we desperately need cooperation from in order to pass any kind of healthcare bill. At the same time though, neglecting supporters to placate the opposition could not only lose President Obama the support of his base, but also lose him a chance at re-election. So, this is where the balancing act comes into play.

Imagine a three-ring circus where the ringleader is President Obama walking a tight rope high above the action. He must be cognizant of the needs and wants of each ring, but also not pay too much attention to any one ring, or he will fall off the rope and plummet down into the lions.

Extended metaphors aside, President Obama showed us this week that he was fully aware that his neglect for fulfilling promises to the Gay and Lesbian community was nearing dangerously close to irreversible. Yesterday, he signed a bill that would extend the legal repercussions of hate crimes to include those committed with a specific malevolence against Gays or Lesbians. This bill also extends the law to crimes motivated by gender identity or disability. The bill has great significance for the Gay community. Officially titled the Matthew Shepperd & James Byrd Jr. Hate Prevention Act, the bill is named after 21-year-old Shepperd, a college student who was brutally murdered from a homophobic attack over a decade ago.

Signing the hate crime bill was the small pat on the back the Gay and Lesbian community needed to know that Obama hasn’t forgotten about them. Meanwhile, punishing people for hate crimes, no matter what kind of person they are committed against, is a topic very few people who generally oppose Gay rights would contest. The bill is a good place to start for what will hopefully be a full-fledged, but potentially long-fought civil rights movement towards gay-equality.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

White House fuels Fox’s fire in an attempt to put it out

There’s tough reporting, and then there’s outright journalistic antagonism. After taking a verbal beating from the alleged “fair and balanced” news network for close to a year now, the White House has apparently decided enough is enough, with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs calling FOX “a wing of the Republican party” and Communications Director Anita Dunn describing FOX as “opinion journalism masquerading as news”.

While not unmerited, this official denunciation of the cable news channel did little more than provoke the conservative media giant. In one swift move, the white house has simultaneously satisfied its school-yard quest for revenge and also driven three and a half million viewers further into the FOX-hole.

From promoting tea party rallies against big government, to outright opposing the White House’s agenda, and even calling the first black President of the United States a “racist”, there is no denying that FOX oversteps its boundaries as a news organization. But for the three million plus Americans that watch it religiously, Rupert Murdoch can do no wrong.

Most of these viewers would defend the content of FOX’s news shows as intently as they would their own political beliefs. For that reason, the White House is seriously misguided if it hopes that their formal criticism of the network will help these loyal viewers see the errs in FOX’s ways.

One FOX executive told the NY Times that the jabs by the White House could solidify the network’s audience base, a viewership that continues to expand in response to the party shift in office. Bill Shine, senior vice president for FOX programming, said that Obama’s first year is on track to be the news channel’s highest rated year. Appropriately put by the Chairman of FOX, Roger Ailes, “Don’t pick a fight with people who like to fight.”

But the White House is coming out swinging.

In an interview with CNN, Dunn announced that the White House would not be a “passive bystander” as opponents [FOX] try to “tear down the president and his presidency…we will push back.” As comments like this one continue to come from Obama’s press team, FOX characters rejoice that the democrats are practically handing over content for their shows. Sean Hannity recently took pleasure in labeling his show “Not White House Approved”, while FOX’s newest star, Glen Beck, proudly unveiled a red telephone on his set so that the White House can call and directly voice their complaints.

While I personally commend Gibbs, Dun, and others for finally saying what every responsible media consumer has been thinking, this sense of gratification comes at too high a cost. Conservative viewers and journalists alike now claim that the White House can’t handle the heat that comes with hard-hitting investigative reporting. The move to defend itself is then rapidly spun, at the very capable hands of FOX, into what appears as a press cop-out.

At this point, the most responsible war the White House could wage against FOX news is a silent one. Attacking an opponent with clear philosophical differences, a massive public platform to express those differences, and several million people eager to listen, is not a battle the White House has the time or ability to win.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Obama must reach out across the aisle if he is to accomplish anything on his mounting to-do list. This relationship is going to have to include even the loudest appendage of the conservative party: the media.

With very little hope of changing the minds of FOX viewers, the White House would be smart to avoid further engaging them in a manner that almost certainly guarantees negative backlash. And for those of us who do agree that FOX News is a “wing of the Republican party”, we do not require spoken validation of this opinion from the Obama administration. In fact, we would prefer it if the White House would just be the bigger party, and do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Celebriticians: How We Allow them to Weaken the American Political System

Her fashion-forward sweater set. His saucy love affair with a campaign staffer. These should be the top stories on an Entertainment news show, not a political news show. But flip through any of the major 24-hour news networks today and inevitably you will find the details of the governor’s sex scandal, the first lady’s fashion faux pas, or the ex-Vice Presidential Candidate’s daughter’s pregnancy. Which should leave most Americans wondering, what about the actual politics? Our cultural obsession with the lives of celebrities has grown to include political leaders, whose daily lives often wind up making the news more often than the work they’ve been elected to do. The media’s disproportionate emphasis on politicians and their often salacious lives overshadows coverage of the political issues, which in turn has begun to discredit the American political process as a whole.

America’s love affair with personality-driven politics dates back to the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy realized how powerful the television medium could be to the political process. “The Kennedy-Nixon debates allowed voters to see how Kennedy and the camera adored each other, and television permanently transformed American politics”(Caryn James, New York Times). The presidential first-family was broadcast into living rooms all across the country, and for the first time, the constituents were seeing their politicians up-close and personal. Glamorous and powerful, the Kennedy family became iconic to the American public, attracting the attention of paparazzi more like a member of The Beatles than a political leader. Now almost 50 years later, we are every bit as enticed by the celebrity of the new first-family, as we were when presidential politics made its television debut.

President Barack Obama has become one of the biggest celebrities of our generation, attracting the attention of many people who might otherwise have not been as interested in the political process. What makes this potentially disconcerting is that on any given day the President’s dog garners more press than the cap-and-trade bill he spent the morning re-drafting. While the media seems like the easiest scapegoat to pin responsibility on for the degeneration of fact-based political reporting, it is not the root of the problem. Media coverage of any issue is simply an answer to the public’s demand for information about a particular subject. We, the American people are the overly curious beasts that drive the non-stop coverage of celebrity-politics. This curiosity is then perpetuated by the increased availability of new media forms that make access to the lives of politicians no more difficult than a click of a button.

If the invention of television gave Americans the chance to pull back the curtain of mystery and have a peek at the lives of politicians, then today’s digital revolution has enabled the average citizen to tear down the curtain and gawk as long as they’d like. The digital revolution has created a plethora of new mediums through which information can be transmitted. The expansion of cable networks has allowed niche market channels to flourish, and news to branch out into a diverse array of around-the-clock coverage options. The limitlessness of the virtual world, whether television or online, has opened up the floodgates for anything and everything to be revealed. When there can be a whole blog, website, talk show, or even television network dedicated to nothing but following the lives of politicians, why wouldn’t it exist? The problem is not that it does, but rather that it is sufficiently more engaging and intriguing to the masses than any kind of 24-hour coverage of political issues. These new opportunities created by the digital world have given us a choice, or rather, a lot of choices. The trouble is, very few would choose C-SPAN coverage of a congressional hearing over Comedy Central’s the Colbert Report, and perhaps still fewer would choose sitting down to watch the Colbert Report in its entirety on television, when they could go to the website and pick and choose whichever stories interest them.

Now that the individual has been empowered with the ability to create his or her own media diet rather than being spoon-fed what someone perceives are the top stories, the media must cater to their audience’s preferences in order to remain relevant. If the majority of their audience would prefer to watch a story about a political sex-affair more than a story about a bill going through the senate appropriations committee, then the media will cover the sex-affair more aggressively to stay competitive with the millions of other choices anybody has for accessing political information. So then the real issue seems to be why it is that we as Americans have shaped our political interests around politicians and not the political work they do. The most obvious answer seems to be the one that is also the most disappointing: In a day and age where we require constant stimulation and excitement, government’s slow, tedious procedures just don’t make the cut. Where politics themselves may be very difficult to for the average person to follow, politicians on the other hand, are just people whose lives not only make sense, but are often more fascinating than public policy and debate.

It is without question that people are more fascinating than politics, but is there something more to our fixation with the lives of political leaders? American culture thrives on icons; faces, names, people whom we all think we know better than our own mother, and well we probably do. "There's a celebrity stalker in all of us," says James Houran, an academic clinical psychologist who has researched celebrity worship. "We need celebrities as much as we need food, water and shelter. We need them to feel connected" (Bruce Horovitz, USA Today). Perhaps it is this desire for connection to our political leaders, some of the most powerful men and women in the country, that drives us to seek out every detail of their personal lives. As the line between politician and celebrity blur, our interest in lawmakers extends beyond their work lives and into their personal lives. This cultural obsession with celebrities’ lives has been around for a long time, and still even some of the biggest celebrities don’t understand why. Playboy Entrepreneur, Hugh Hefner, was quoted in a USA Today article saying, “There's an intrinsic voyeurism within society that technology has helped to spiral out of control. People not only want to see celebrities without their clothes — but to learn the naked truth about them.” Whereas celebrities once seemed so inaccessible, technology has brought these larger-than-life personalities right to our living rooms and home offices, even to our cell phones. While learning “the naked truth” about musicians, actors, or athletes seems to have no real consequence on their professional work, the same cannot be said for celeb-politicians.

Theoretically, politicians should be of the highest caliber of class, dignity, and moral righteousness. In reality though, these elected lawmakers are really just regular human beings chosen to do an important job. They are no less likely to sin or misstep than the ordinary citizen, but inevitably a select few of them always do. When this happens, the media exploits the issue in every way possible, while the American public stands by waiting to absorb every minute detail. When something happens in a politician’s personal life, it is as if the political world comes to a screeching halt, or at least that’s what one would perceive by the way the media covers scandals and conflicts. For at least a week after a politician admits to having an affair, is accused of extortion, or even just makes a public scene, nothing else seems to make the news. More people can tell you about Congressman Joe Wilson’s outburst during the President’s address to Congress, than what the content of the actual address was. These kinds of episodes and the amount of attention they receive, exacerbate feelings of distrust in politicians.

The notion that politicians are “slimy” people is perpetuated by extensive coverage of political scandals, which in-turn repels a lot of people from participating in politics. Whether or not politicians as a whole are “slimy” is debatable, but the disproportionate amount of coverage of the select few who are in fact dishonorable or morally reprehensible, ruins the reputation for the thousands who are not. And even still for those politicians who do make mistakes in their personal lives, these discrepancies should not overshadow the real political issues. If a businessman cheats on his wife, it may ruin his personal life, but most likely would not affect his professional life. The standard is different for politicians. A political leader isn’t any less fit to carry out his or her elected responsibilities because of a personal transgression. That’s not to say that their actions shouldn’t be condemned, they just shouldn’t be publicly condemned for weeks to months on end. The more negative publicity politicians incur, the weaker their respective parties and the American political system as a whole will become.

Negative publicity is not exclusive in its weakening of the political system. Controversial publicity of topics that are not directly relevant to the political process are also disadvantageous to its reputation. A common phrase in the journalism world is, “if it bleeds, it leads”. In the case of political news it seems fair to say, “if it’s a juicy read, it leads”. Our fascination with the lives of extravagant political characters has made it easier for politicians to get press coverage for things unrelated to politics. This publicity allows them to make a name for themselves and helps them to break into the political arena, though they may be severely under-qualified. For example, Sarah Palin is still a media icon, though her recent participation in the political process after the 2008 election, has been of relatively no significance whatsoever to the country. The American news media continues to give her a political platform to be heard because the general public is still very fascinated by her personal life and intrigued by her celebrity. In fact, we hear more sound bites on the news from Palin as an ex-Vice Presidential candidate than we do from our actual Vice President, Joe Biden. As outrageous characters and scandalous behavior become increasingly synonymous with American politics, the public becomes ever more jaded in their perception of politicians and the credibility of the work they do.

Even seemingly harmless and occasionally positive publicity of politicians can prove to be a detriment to the American political image. This is especially pertinent when addressing the press coverage of females in the political realm. It is difficult enough for a woman to break into the political world, and when she does, the media seldom gives her any legitimate coverage for her policy work. The constant scrutiny or praise of female politicians’ appearances and fashion sense, belittles them to mere fashion icons, a challenge their male counterparts never face. In a field where authority comes from perceived power, women cannot afford to be denigrated to little more than a gender stereotype. News stories about Michelle Obama’s fashion sense or Hilary Clinton’s figure reduces our nation’s political system to a beauty pageant. Katie Heimer of the National Organization for Women said that female politicians are media magnets, often covered in a sexist way that undermines their credibility and trivializes their ability to provide strong, effective leadership (Katie Heimer, reclaimthemedia). If there were less focus on the gender and appearance of the person behind the politics, his or her efforts as a political leader would be taken more seriously on the national and international stage.

As we acknowledge the problem, its cause, and serious consequences, the current state of political reporting seems almost irreversible. Perhaps though, the long-term reality is not quite as bleak as it may seem. Could it be possible that the over-coverage of politicians and under-coverage of politics will prove to strengthen the American political system in the long run, not through a better understanding of the issues but through a closer sense of relation to the politicians? The continually evolving nature of the digital world will only continue to close the gap between people who otherwise would have no connection to one another. The advent of television, the internet, and now social networking sites have revolutionized the interaction between constituent and elected representative. One can only hope that as politicians become increasingly accessible to the public, the glamour and awe of their apparent celebrity status will diminish, allowing the political issues to take center stage.